WASHINGTON — For the first time, Lockheed Martin company Sikorsky turned over its Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA) to U.S. Army pilots for a spin, according to an Oct. 29 company statement.

An emerging priority is to bring optionally piloted capability to the entire existing fleet as well as the future fleet, the program executive officer for Army aviation, Brig. Gen. Thomas Todd, told Defense News earlier this month.

The Army pilots, at Fort Eustis, Virginia, guided the modified S-76B commercial helicopter through a series of missions to demonstrate the technology that Sikorsky and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have developed.

“We could not be more thrilled to welcome Army aviators to the cockpit to experience first-hand the reliability of optimally-piloted technology developed by the innovative engineers at Sikorsky and DARPA,” Chris Van Buiten, vice president of Sikorsky Innovations, said in the release. “These aviators experienced the same technology that we are installing and testing on a Black Hawk that will take its first flight over the next several months.”

Sikorsky has been flying SARA for several years and has continued to refine technology in the demonstrator as it moves forward. According to the company, the aircraft has logged more than 300 hours of autonomous flight.

The demonstration exhibited capabilities developed as part of the third phase of DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program.

During the demonstration, Army pilots toggled back and forth between flying the aircraft from the cockpit to flying it from the ground.

SARA’s MATRIX Technology, which is software and hardware that brings autonomous flight to the cockpit, was also put through its paces during the event showing the capability to conduct automated take off and landing, obstacle avoidance, automatic landing zone selection and contour flight, which means the aircraft flew low to the ground and behind trees.

“We’re demonstrating a certifiable autonomy solution that is going to drastically change the way pilots fly,” Mark Ward, Sikorsky chief pilot at its Stratford, Connecticut, Flight Test Center, said in the statement. “We’re confident that MATRIX Technology will allow pilots to focus on their missions. This technology will ultimately decrease instances of the number one cause of helicopter crashes: Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT).”

The effort will feed into Sikorsky and DARPA’s plans to develop a tailorable autonomy kit for installation on both fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, according to the statement.

Next up for Sikorsky is a plan to fly, for the first time, a UH-60 Black Hawk equipped with ALIAS.

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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